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Paula Owen: 'It’s never too late to decide to turn your hand to novel writing'

BY Katie Smart
1st Sep 2021

Paula Owen was a student on our Writing Your Novel course in 2020. Now her debut historical novel Little Brown Dog will be published by Honno Press 15 September.

We caught up with Paula to talk about her time on the course, her approach to research and her move from writing non-fiction to fiction...

You studied on our three-month online Writing Your Novel course in 2020. How did your time on the course impact your approach to writing?

The course instilled in me a sense of order and craft. I came across it after I’d completed a first draft of Little Brown Dog. However, as this was the first piece of fiction I had written, I had no clue of the discipline involved – I just wrote, instinctively. The course helped me understand how I could order the story differently and provided valuable insight and techniques to improve the second draft. The discipline of weekly tasks was also helpful, especially during the pandemic, as it gave structure and challenge to my monotonous life under lockdown. The course was a godsend in that respect.

What was the best piece of advice you received from tutor Charlotte Mendelson?

I think what resonated was Charlotte’s advice not to over-describe. I know I have a tendency to do so, and as my novel is historical fiction, I think the desire is more pronounced. It is tempting, after you have spent so much time down a rabbit hole researching a fascinating fact or place, to wax lyrical about it, assuming they will equally enthral the reader. That is rarely the case, and the plain fact is you are simply slowing the reader down. I am learning to curb my enthusiasm, but my editor may disagree with me on that.

Many of our students form writing support groups. Are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

Yes, I particularly gelled with one of my course mates. Even though our novels couldn’t be more different in terms of genres, we just seemed to click, and in fact she is coming from Scotland to my book launch party in London in September. After the 3-month course, I signed up for the shorter historical fiction course. Again, I gelled with several course-mates, and we have an ongoing online group where we share monthly excerpts from our work-in-progress for feedback, which I find immensely helpful.

Your debut Little Brown Dog is a tale of two female friends against the patriarchal, elitist Edwardian scientific community. Can you tell us more about your novel and the inspiration behind it?

The action is set in Edwardian London. Two young women covertly infiltrate a live dissection demonstration at a university medical school. The casual cruelty they witness appals them and they are determined to expose the academic involved, a renowned physiologist, and put a stop to such practices. The story follows their fight for justice, and explores the lengths the male-dominated medical profession of the day would stoop to in defence of their barbaric status quo.

I have to confess, I didn’t set out to become a fiction writer. My published work to date has focused on non-fiction, environmental topics. The incident that changed everything happened three years ago. I heard a story completely by chance. A true story of an incredible series of events that had taken place close to home in south London. It was so extraordinary I couldn’t believe it wasn’t better known. It became something of an obsession; I couldn’t get it out of my head. I thought then, and still do, that it would make a fantastic feature film, and had a go at writing a screenplay. That has ended up as my novel, Little Brown Dog. But I haven’t given up on the film idea!

The true story involves two remarkably brave women speaking truth to power in an age where women had little voice and no power. In it I see echoes of the #MeToo movement. But they were not speaking up about the mis-treatment of their own kind, instead they we defending those who have no voice at all. And even though the events occurred over a century ago, the themes it explores are prescient: a male-dominated, privileged, closed community that act as if they are gods, and who will stop at nothing to ruin all who stand up to them; and a controversial statue that causes civil unrest and heated national debate, and a mob that wants it destroyed.

Do you have any top tips for incorporating research into historical fiction?

Don’t treat your novel as if it were a history lesson. You might find the intricate detail of your research findings fascinating, but others probably will not.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

There isn’t one. I fit writing around my day job. I’m an environmental researcher, writer and educator and run two small companies – a consultancy and an eco-educational games social enterprise - so depending on my workload, I can fit more, or less, writing in to the day, but it is all a little haphazard. The weekends are richer pickings to carve out a good chunk of time to write.

What words of wisdom would you like to share with the aspiring authors reading this?

I guess, from my perspective, it’s never too late to decide to turn your hand to novel writing, and you don’t need a degree in English or to have completed a creative writing MA to have a chance of publication. For me, the story’s the thing. If you have a compelling story, then write it down. It might take many iterations to get it right, but if the story is good enough, and you believe in it enough, then you will get it out there.

Finally, what’s next for you – any ideas for your next writing project?

I’m currently halfway through the sequel, but stuck on the resolution to an important sub-plot. The ending of Little Brown Dog saw my two protagonists, Lena and Eliza, at an intriguing crossroads in their lives, and I found I couldn’t leave them there. Also, I have come across an extraordinary woman who was instrumental in an array of brave acts during the later suffrage campaign, but is little known of, and certainly not acknowledged. I want to bring her story back to life. So, I’m weaving a selection of her most audacious escapades into the lives of my two heroines, as well as exploring their most unconventional lives, post the brown dog affair.

My other project takes me right back to my first book, which was published two decades ago. It was a non-fictional account of an environmental incident that occurred in the mid-1990s. I always thought it would make a thrilling film or TV series, but it has taken twenty years for someone to agree. The story is being developed into a TV drama and my book is the key reference source for the production team. I am acting as consultant to the production team and scriptwriter.

Competition time

To celebrate the launch of Little Brown Dog, Honno Press have launched a competition to win signed copies of the book, as well as limited-edition Little Brown Dog doggie bandanas (beautifully modelled by the lovely Rosa), a Little Brown Dog gin and a host of other goodies donated by ethical pet companies.

The competition tests people’s knowledge of London landmarks. The front cover depicts a silhouette montage of six statues and buildings that appear in the story. We want people to identify all six silhouettes, and, in addition, the image of the building that appears on the back cover. We will drop the individual images and clues on social media in the run-up week to the publication date of 15th September. Click here for more information about the competition and how to enter.

And to be alerted to the clues as they drop on social media, follow:

Twitter: @Honno and @L1ttleBrownDog

Instagram: @LittleBrownDogTheNovel